There are many places I would like to go to, but when an opportunity for the Olympus Wildlife Project (international photographers, filmmakers and journalists with a chance to visit the distant and wild corners of the world) came up, I chose the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Together with Krystian Bielatowicz, we set off to Kurile Lake, which is located only 200 kilometers away from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka region.
The first meeting with a bear made a great impression on me, especially because there was no inspector by me, neither did I have a weapon. When I got out of the tent, I noticed a "monster" staring at me in the bushes just a dozen meters away. The only thing that separated me from the predator was a 5-millimeter wire stretched around the camp. Luckily the bear stayed calm, which enabled me to dismantle my long-focus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens and to grab a “three-hundred”(M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO). I started taking photos of the animal, which stuck its head out of the bushes from time to time. Although the bear was not visible in all its glory, the photo of the head, hidden between the leaves and filling the entire frame, had its own vibe.
At the end of summer, Pacific salmons swim through Kurile Lake. During this time, hundreds of bears gather on the banks of the rivers and lakes. This is not only a feast for them, but also for every photographer in the area. For this, I took pictures using both short-range and long-range lenses. I used the wide-angle lens mainly in the photo trap, although a few times I happened to be so close to these animals that I could not fit them in the frame.
I put my OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera with a M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2.0 lens in a special solid plastic case and was releasing the shutter from a safe distance via Wi-Fi using my smartphone. This is especially because the smartphone’s screen shows exactly what our camera sees. The second release method is to apply the popular motion detector used in alarm systems. Just a few minor modifications and its electrical contacts touch when motion is detected and closing the electronic circuit releases the shutter.
It would seem that there is nothing easier than setting a photo trap and waiting for the best picture ever to be taken by itself. However, several situations, which I have already experienced, show that this is just a theory. One situation was when an adult bear, that was interested in the trap, came very close. A moment later, the bear laid its paw on the trap and started flipping the box over. I could only dream about the box turning over with the opening and the lens towards the bear. I was figuring out how to quickly change the parameters of the exposure in order to make a successful photo but, of course, the bear turned over the trap so that I saw only sand and water on my smartphone’s screen. A moment later, my box with the camera and the power supply were floating on the surface of the lake and slowly taking up water. Fortunately, the equipment survived and the whole set was fit for use. The practice shows that we need not only a trap but also a lot of time and luck in order to take great photos.
Only a small percentage of our photographs were taken remotely. Krystian was shooting handheld videos and was also using a tripod and a drone. At the same time, I was taking pictures with and without a tripod. Probably the most interesting thing for both of us was to watch the bears catching salmons. Hunting itself is a very dynamic event. Therefore, I used fast sequential shooting, continuous autofocus and long-range lenses—mainly 40-150mm F2.8 PRO zoom lens and 300mm F4.0 IS PRO lens.
OM-D E-M1 Mark II has a large buffer and it enables you to shoot at 15 fps while using a mechanical shutter mode. This way I was able to capture the entire sequence of catching the salmon, step by step and very accurately in order to show the moments from jumping into the water to pulling the fish out. As usual, I chose RAW + JPG.
I also used Pro Capture quite often. Here the camera saves what it sees in the buffer before we even fully press the shutter button. Then pressing the shutter release button halfway starts the process of recording in the buffer the full resolution RAW + JPG images at up to 60 fps shooting rate. While watching the bears standing on the shore, I was pressing the shutter button halfway. I was fully pressing it each time one of the bears jumped out to catch a fish. This shooting enabled me to save the whole sequence and to pick the most amazing image of when the bear jumps into the water.
Personally, when it comes to nature photography, all the fun is to show certain things in a completely different way. Therefore, a photo of the bear standing alone in the water will be less interesting than catching some tiny details. Although you will hear in every photo course that you should not take pictures against the light, my favorite photo of all from the Olympus Wildlife Project is the one taken against the sun. The sun, the bear and I were exactly in line. The scene itself is very underexposed, which gives it a graphical look. Dark fragments drown in blacks, and the only exposed fragments of the picture are the reflections on the water and the bear’s fur lit from behind.
Experiment and take advantage of the fact that digital photography gives us the opportunity to take a lot of outdoor pictures. It is a sin not to use sequential shooting, especially if you are a fan of dynamic nature photography. We are often afraid to admit how many photos we took during a session or a trip, but in fact viewers or the photo editors do not care how many pictures you took to get the “perfect” picture. What counts most is the fact that you have taken a great photo. The more ideas and courage to experiment, the better for YOU and YOUR photos. Even if the vast majority of pictures created during such experiments end up in a rubbish bin, you will be always learning something new and enriching your knowledge.
Author & Photographer: Marcin Dobas